Aside from the threat of nuclear missiles, the island of Guam is facing another problem; a living, breathing, slithering, omnipresent problem. The island has 12 snakes for every human being. These snakes are not native to Guam, and it is thought that they originally arrived as stowaways on American ships coming from Papua New Guinea at the time the Americans liberated the island from the Japanese in 1944. They have thrived in their new home, and today there are an estimated 5,000 snakes per square kilometer.
If you are a scientist, you should know that their scientific name is Boiga Irregularis, but they are commonly known as brown tree snakes. They are venomous, but not very dangerous to adult humans. Their poison is transmitted through fangs in the rear of their mouths, so they kind of have to chew on you in order to release it. They are, however, dangerous to children or anyone or anything that has a low body mass. Mostly, they use their poison to subdue lizards, birds, bats and any small rodent. They especially like birds and their delicious eggs. The brown tree snake is nocturnal, and it has found so many convenient meals in Guam that it often grows larger than its normal 1 – 2 meters. They have been found as large as 3 meters in Guam, where they have no natural predators.
The snakes have simply wreaked havoc on Guam’s ecosystem. Most humans do not notice when the mouse, bat, rat and lizard population is decreasing, but they do notice when birds and trees are disappearing. Brown tree snakes love to eat saplings, and some scientists say that in Guam, the new tree count has fallen by as much as 92%. This is not only because the snakes are eating the saplings, but also because without the fruit bats that the snakes eat, few tree seeds are being dispersed around the island. It is estimated that two-thirds of the island’s trees rely on animals to distribute and germinate their seeds, and because of the snakes, forest growth will drop between 61 – 92%.
Ten of the twelve bird species native to Guam have vanished, including a kingfisher that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. The island has become eerily quiet. The disappearance of birds also affects the trees as birds disperse seeds from the fruit that they eat.
When they’re not devouring eggs, baby animals, birds and baby trees, brown tree snakes like to play in the electrical systems and the damage they cause by shorting out electrical systems costs the island a couple of million dollars a year.
The American government has been trying to combat the problem in the form of chemical warfare for an embarrassing number of years. Paracetamol is their weapon of choice, a drug that is fatal to many animals, including brown snakes. The simple drug – sold under the brand name Tylenol in the US – is harmless to humans. The government has been parachuting thousands of dead mice, which have been injected with the drug, into the trees of Guam. The parachuted mice hang from the trees until a hungry snake slithers by and eats it. So far, research shows that the snakes do take bait and they do die, but no one knows if they are dying at a significant rate, or at least dying as fast as they are reproducing. In Guam, the brown tree snake reproduces at a much higher rate than it did in its original habitat.
Meanwhile, in another island paradise, Hawaiians are fearful that the snake will invade their island as stowaways and destroy both their lifestyles and their tourism industry. Their fears are not unfounded, as many ships travel between the two islands. But at the same time animal rights activists are protesting the cruelty of using dead toxic mice as a defense mechanism against the invasive snakes.
Tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years. Egyptians, for example, used tattoos to differentiate between peasants and slaves, a kind of social branding. But ink art, which is what some fans like to call tattooing, has really exploded in the past 25 years. But not all of us have succumbed to this fad. And many of us who don’t have a tattoo have a favorite mug. Having a tattoo or becoming attached to a mug are not dissimilar. According to research, 60% of Americans say they have an emotional attachment to a favorite mug. And about 40% said their special mug was irreplaceable, and about 1/3 of those said they would be devastated if it broke. Personally, I think that most of these people don’t have tattoos. Mugs and tattoos are both an extension of our personalities, and both express the way we would like the world to perceive us. That is not to mention, of course, that those of us who have tattoos or mugs are often irrationally attached to them.